Paul Thek

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Paul Thek
Paul Thek

(1933-11-02)November 2, 1933
DiedAugust 10, 1988(1988-08-10) (aged 54)
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
EducationArt Students League of New York, Pratt Institute, Cooper Union School of the Arts
Known forPainting, Sculpture, Installation art

Paul Thek (November 2, 1933 – August 10, 1988) was an American painter, sculptor and installation artist. Thek was active in both the United States and Europe, exhibiting several installations and sculptural works over the course of his life. Posthumously, he has been widely exhibited throughout the United States and Europe, and his work is held in numerous collections including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC,[1] the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and Kolumba, the Art Museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne.

Life and career[edit]

Thek (born George Thek) was the second of four children born to parents of German and Irish ancestry in Brooklyn.[2][3] In 1950, Thek studied at the Art Students League of New York as well as Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, before entering the School of Art at the Cooper Union in New York in 1951.[4][5][6] Upon graduating in 1954, he moved to Miami, where he met and became involved with set designer Peter Harvey, who introduced Thek to a number of artists and writers such as Tennessee Williams.[7] During this time, Thek created some of his first known drawings, including studies in charcoal and graphite (now held in Kolumba's collections), later followed by abstract watercolors and oil paintings. Thek first referred to himself as Paul Thek starting in 1955; in a letter to Harvey, he writes: "Let me tell you who I am George Joseph Thek but Paul to you and Paul to me you would have to be me to know why I am Paul after all this erroneous George business."[8] In 1957, he exhibited his works for the first time at Mirrell Gallery in Miami.[8] It was in Florida that Thek first met photographer Peter Hujar, who photographed Thek in Coral Gables.[9]

By the end of 1959, Thek and Hujar, now a couple, were living in New York. Thek traveled to Italy in 1962, and with Hujar visited the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo, an experience which had a strong influence on his work.[10]

During the 1960s, Thek and Hujar associated with a number of artists and writers including Joseph Raffaele, Eva Hesse, Gene Swenson, and Susan Sontag. Thek was particularly close to Sontag, who dedicated her 1966 collection of essays, Against Interpretation, to him. According to Sontag's biographer, the title and inspiration for the eponymous essay came from Thek. One day when Sontag was "talking about art in a cerebral way that many complained was a bore," he interrupted: "Susan, stop, stop. I'm against interpretation. We don't look at art when we interpret it. That's not the way to look at art."[11]

In 1964, he participated in Andy Warhol's Screen Tests.[12] It was during this time that he began to work in installation and sculpture, most notably creating wax sculptures made in the likeness of meat. Between 1964 and 1967, Thek had three solo exhibitions of his famed Technological Reliquaries at Stable Gallery and Pace Gallery in New York.

Thek was awarded a Fulbright fellowship in 1967 to Italy, leaving New York shortly after his exhibition for The Tomb opened.[13] The figure in Thek's Tomb was popularly associated with the American hippie movement and has often been mistitled as Death of a Hippie. He traveled and lived throughout Europe during the late 1960s and early 1970s and worked on large scale installations.

After a peripatetic lifestyle, Thek took up permanent residence in New York in 1976 and began teaching at Cooper Union.[14] Amid increasing emotional stress, he struggled to make and sell work, but began to show nationally and internationally again during the 1980s.[15] He died on August 10, 1988, after learning he had AIDS the year prior.[16] After his death, Sontag dedicated AIDS and Its Metaphors to his memory.

In 2010, the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited the first American retrospective of Thek's work with Diver, a Retrospective.[17] Works of Paul Thek are on permanent display at The Watermill Center on Long Island, New York.[18][19]

Notable works[edit]

Warrior's Leg, (1966–1967). Wax, metal, leather, and paint; in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Technological Reliquaries, or Meat Pieces (1964–67) is among Thek's most notable body of works, wax sculptures made in the likeness of raw meat and human limbs encased in Plexiglas vitrines. In a 1966 interview, he speaks of the work: “I hope the work has the innocence of those Baroque Crypts in Sicily; their initial effect is so stunning you fall back for a moment and then it's exhilarating…It delighted me that bodies could be used to decorate a room, like flowers. We accept our thing-ness intellectually but the emotional acceptance of it can be a joy.”[15]

The Tomb (1967), perhaps his most famous work, was a pink ziggurat which encased an effigy of Thek made from a mannequin with face, hands, and feet cast from his own body. Painted in a light pink, the effigy featured a protruding tongue and a hand bloodied from amputation, and was surrounded by other casts of Thek's body in cases roped off with red cords in reference to archeological digs.[15]

The Procession/The Artist's Co-op (1969, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), Pyramid/A Work in Progress (1971–72, Moderna Museet, Stockholm), Ark, Pyramid (1972, documenta 5, Kassel), and Ark, Pyramid, Easter (1973, Kunstmuseum Luzern) were a series of conceptually-related installations created with a number of collaborators during Thek's time in Europe. Each contained common elements which served to create an immersive environment, including: the “Hippie” (a cast of Thek's body), the Dwarf Parade Table (a table supported by a latex statue of a dwarf and chairs), and a chicken coop. With each installation came an increasing number of items compromising the pieces, to the point at which much of Ark, Pyramid, Easter had to be destroyed as Kunstmuseum Luzern could no longer store the components.[15]

Selected exhibitions[edit]

Selected solo exhibitions[edit]

  • 2022: Paul Thek: Italian Hours, Fondazione Nicola del Roscio, Rome, Italy
  • 2021: Paul Thek: Relativity Clock, Alexander and Bonin, New York
  • 2021: Paul Thek: Interior/Landscape, The Watermill Center, Water Mill, New York
  • 2015: Ponza and Roma, Alexander and Bonin, New York; Mai 36 Galerie, Zürich
  • 2015: Please Write! Paul Thek and Franz Deckwitz: An Artists' Friendship, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
  • 2013: Nothing But Time: Paul Thek Revisited 1964–1987, Pace Gallery, London
  • 2012–13: Paul Thek, in Process, Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg; Kunstmuseum Luzern
  • 2012–13: Art is Liturgy – Paul Thek and the Others, Kolumba, Art Museum of The Archdiocese of Cologne
  • 2010–11: Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
  • 2009: Paul Thek: Artist's Artist, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid
  • 2005: Paul Thek Luzern 1973/2005, Kunstmuseum Luzern
  • 1995: Paul Thek: The wonderful world that almost was, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam; Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Fundacio Antoni Tapies, Barcelona; Kunsthalle Zürich/Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zürich; MAC, galeries contemporaines des musées de Marseille, Marseille
  • 1991: Paul Thek, Newspaper and Notebook Drawings, Brooke Alexander Gallery New York
  • 1977: Paul Thek/Processions, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia
  • 1976: The Personal Effects of the Pied Piper, Galerie Alexandre Iolas
  • 1973: Ark, Pyramid-Easter, Kunstmuseum Luzern
  • 1972: A Station of the Cross, Galerie M.E. Thelen, Essen
  • 1971: Pyramid/A Work in Progress, Moderna Museet, Stockholm
  • 1969: The Procession/The Artist's Co-op, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
  • 1968: A Procession in Honor of Aesthetic Progress: Objects Theoretically to Wear, Carry, Pull or Wave, Galerie M.E. Thelen, Essen
  • 1967: The Tomb, Stable Gallery, New York
  • 1966: Paul Thek: Recent Work, Pace Gallery, New York

Selected group exhibitions[edit]

Selected collections[edit]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Paul Thek. From Cross to Crib. Cologne: Walther Koenig, 2014 ISBN 978-3-86335-335-3
  • Neubauer, Susanne. Paul Thek in Process. Commentaries on/of an exhibition. Berlin: Revolver Publishing, 2014 ISBN 9783957630988
  • Schachter, Kenny. Nothing But Time: Paul Thek Revisited 1964 – 1987. ex cat. London: Pace, 2013. ISBN 978-1909406063
  • Sussman, Elisabeth and Lynn Zelevansky. Paul Thek: Diver. ex cat, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art; Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011 ISBN 978-0300165951
  • Falckenberg, Harald and Peter Weibel, eds. Paul Thek: Artist's Artist. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; Karlsruhe: ZKM | Center for Art and Media Technology, 2008 ISBN 978-0262012546
  • Brehm, Margrit, and Axel Heil, Roberto Ohrt, eds. Tales the Tortoise Taught Us.. König, Cologne 2008, ISBN 978-3-8656-0389-0
  • Wittmann, Philipp. Paul Thek – Vom Frühwerk zu den "Technologischen Reliquiaren". Friedland: Klaus Bielefeld Verlag, 2004 ISBN 978-3-8983-3061-9
  • Cotter, Holland, Marietta Franke, Richard Flood, Herald Szeemann, and Ann Wilson. Paul Thek: The wonderful world that almost was. ex. cat. Rotterdam: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, 1995 ISBN 978-9073362321
  • Paul Thek/Processions. Text by Suzanne Delehanty. Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1977


  1. ^ "The Conservation of Paul Thek's Fishman and the Meaning of the Ephemeral – Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden – Smithsonian". Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  2. ^ "Paul Thek Dead at 54; An Artist of the Surreal". The New York Times. 11 August 1988. Retrieved 31 March 2022.
  3. ^ "Paul Thek - Artists - Video Art World". VideoArtWorld. Retrieved 31 March 2022.
  4. ^ "Paul Thek (A'54) at the Modern Institute – The Cooper Union". Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  5. ^ "Paul Thek". Palazzo Grassi. Retrieved 31 March 2022.
  6. ^ "Paul Thek - Paul Thek". Retrieved 31 March 2022.
  7. ^ Cotter, Holland (27 June 2013). "Paul Thek and His Circle in the 1950s". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  8. ^ a b "PAUL THEK PROJECT". Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  9. ^ Gefter, Philip; Scott Burton, Martha; Smith, Joel; Turtell, Steve (2017). Peter Hujar: Speed of Life. New York: Copublished by Aperture and Fundación MAPFRE. p. 70. ISBN 978-1-59711-414-1.
  10. ^ "Finding Thek's Tomb – Art in America". Art in America. Retrieved 2018-06-09.
  11. ^ Moser, Benjamin (2019). Sontag: Her Life and Work. New York: Ecco. p. Chapter 12. ISBN 978-0062896391.
  12. ^ "Andy Warhol, Screen Test: Paul Thek, 1964". Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  13. ^ Administrator. "Paul Thek – Biography I (1950–68)". Archived from the original on 12 June 2018. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  14. ^ "Remembering Paul Thek: A Conversation with Ann Wilson and Peter Harvey – ICA Philadelphia". 10 June 2014. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  15. ^ a b c d Zelevansky, Lynn (2011). "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries: The Life and Art of Paul Thek". In Sussman, Elisabeth; Zelevansky, Lynn (eds.). Diver, A Retrospective. Yale University Press. pp. 10–27. ISBN 978-0300165951.
  16. ^ "Out-There Man". 25 October 2010. Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  17. ^ "Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective". Retrieved 2 November 2018.
  18. ^ Robert Wilson (July 17, 2013). "Watermill Center Founder Robert Wilson on Creating "A Place Where We Ask Questions"". Artspace.
  19. ^ "The Watermill Collection – The Watermill Center". Retrieved 2 November 2018.

External links[edit]